Recently I was working with my colleagues on some organizational design issues. We were grappling with the classic question of how to scale an organization so that it’s optimized for impact. As we explored ways in which other types of enterprises have dealt with this kind of growth challenge, I realized how easy it would be for the discussion to remain fixed on an analysis of traditional organizational models – functional, divisional matrix – in the quest to find one that suited us best.
Such organizational models emerged in the early part of the twentieth century to prevent chaos and to promote efficiency in growing businesses. Unfortunately, management theory today confirms that these very structures can become so rigid that they often prevent creativity even as they preserve order.
This all got me thinking – how much structure does a small organization really need? In mulling over this question, I found myself thinking about the work of the famous Swiss architect LeCorbusier (1887-1965) and his equally famous plan libre.
Allow me to explain.
During the early days of LeCorbusier’s career, buildings were designed to reflect traditional bearing wall construction, which often limited the placement of interior walls. But LeCorbusier changed all that with his most iconic design and lasting legacy to the architecture profession – the “Domino” house. Conceived in the 1920’s, it promoted a simple grid of structural columns supporting horizontal concrete slabs. This organizing armature, if you will, allowed for a more important innovation to be realized – a “free plan” of undulating walls that could be placed in a variety of configurations to achieve spatial ingenuity. This was achievable because the walls were not limited by the structural grid but rather were enabled by it – the grid was “the function that gives the form to the interior space”1.
To bring the conversation back to that other kind of organizational structure – can we design nonprofits for efficiency as well as creativity? Can there be just enough structure in the right places to not only support but also enable the kinds of human interactions that will help them operate as creative entities? In an ever-changing world, organizations of all kinds must be both strategically adaptable as well as operationally efficient. To paraphrase management guru Gary Hamel, we must “build organizations where discipline and freedom aren’t mutually exclusive”2.
Organizations that enable some freedom of activity are naturally structured for creativity. They are often characterized less by prescribed roles, functions or departments and more by the types of human interactions their culture desires. Typically these are reflected in such things as a strong sense of community, interdisciplinary collaborations, a “one-team” mentality, and an open environment (both literally and figuratively).
So when thinking about what kind of structure is the right kind of structure, we need to ask ourselves what kins of behaviors are we trying to encourage so that our relationships – both internally and externally – deliver unique value and have real impact. Too much structure can mean too little freedom to explore and adapt. We need to prevent that from happening.
1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture , 1960
2 Gary Hamel, The Future of Managemen t, 2007
Laura Weiss is the Vice President of Service Innovation at the Taproot Foundation. Laura comes to the Taproot Foundation after nine years as Associate Partner and Practice Director with the world-renowned design consultancy, IDEO, where she was an advocate for bringing a business perspective to the design process. A former licensed architect and educator, Laura holds and MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management, an MArch from Yale University and a BArch with honors from Cornell University.